What on earth was the usually perceptive Mr Stotter doing when he sent me this title to review? Am I meant to be intrigued by the publishers’ blurb – A major new survival thriller from the author of The Mall, a brilliant mix of Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Patricia Highsmith? Is this my reward for criticising John Connolly for merging the boundaries of crime fiction and horror stories?
Not one to be so easily discouraged, I started reading. And very nearly gave up. A disease is threatening the world, ravaging the Far East before heading for the North American continent. With such an apocalyptic scenario in mind a group of Americans with more money than sense have bought apartments in The Sanctum–a high-end apartment block buried 50 feet underground, submarine-style safe doors, with biometric locking systems, a control room with wall to wall CCTV all designed to preserve rich, paranoid survivor types.
Thankfully, some of the characters do seem to merit a degree of sympathy. And it isn’t too long before they realise that far from an escape from hell on earth the complex is more like a hell under the earth. But the few people you wouldn’t mind being stuck in the Sanctum with are vastly outnumbered by ones I would happily offer as sacrifices to the epidemic. First and foremost there’s the Guthrie family consisting of father and son, redneck, gun-toting, and bullying Christian, racist bigots, evangelic mother, and a Cinderella daughter who is the sole likeable member. Their one aim, aside from surviving the epidemic and upsetting everyone else, seems to be to turn the Sanctum into a preserve for bigotry in all its manifestations.
The problems really begin from lock down of the Sanctum when the residents find that the owner/proprietor of the complex has cut corners and reduced specification (because he ran out of money). Soon after a fire, deliberately started in the Control Room by Mrs Guthrie to prevent her daughter falling prey to the sinfulness of computer games, destroys much of the computerised systems controlling communications with the outside world. Gregg, the owner, is then found dead, possibly murdered. He just happens to be the only person who knows the code for all the complex’s control systems, including the doors connecting them to the outside world, should they ever want, or need, to get out of the Sanctum. Further mishaps serve to wreck the water and sewerage systems. Thus in a short space of time the Sanctum becomes the one place you would not chose to go to survive disasters elsewhere on the planet.
The irony is that after a few chapters I did find myself feeling a degree of empathy with the more sympathetic characters, while still being cheered by the misfortunes which afflict the others. As the population of the Sanctum declines, though natural and unnatural causes, those left gradually give up any hope of survival or rescue. Their food and water supplies run out, bodies rot in the non-functional freezer unit, and rats multiply, encouraged by the raw sewerage at the bottom of the lift-shaft. But, as this is probably a script aimed at Hollywood, the remaining members are rescued at the eleventh hour. Then begins the effort to find out who was responsible for the unnatural deaths, a process which does contain rather surprising outcomes.
It is only at this point that Under World becomes something more than another screenplay for yet another disaster movie. However, if we are going to have more US-based disaster drafts I would like to suggest a very different configuration, in which those sections of the American population who scare me shitless–like the Guthries–are left to their fate while every effort is made to save the goodies like Lehane, Pelecanos and all my favourite crime writers, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire and my other favourite bands, and Bernie Sanders, one of the few American politicians worth saving.